Political Horizons: Japan tries to figure out Louisiana voters _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Takashi Oshima, a correspondent for The Asahi Shimbun, is one of several Japanese reporters covering Louisiana's U.S. Senate and House races. He is photographing Cassie Felder, one of the Republican candidates running for the 6th Congressional District seat, while she makes campaign phone calls Wednesday from her Baton Rouge office.

One of Buddy Roemer’s stories is about visiting with Japanese business leaders back when he was governor in the late 1980s. A businessman interrupted the governor’s spiel on the wonders of Sportsman’s Paradise to say, very sorry, never heard of Louisiana.

That may have changed.

Japanese reporters have descended on Louisiana to cover this state’s congressional elections.

Fox News was on the televisions set up around a Prairieville restaurant Wednesday, and everybody talked badly about President Barack Obama over coffee and biscuits. Takashi Oshima was there to cover a speech by Cassie Felder, one of the 13 candidates running for the 6th Congressional District. What he found most intriguing was the National Rifle Association stickers decorating the walls and the diners’ familiarity with guns.

True, Oshima comes from a country that has tightly controlled possession of firearms — and swords — since shoguns ruled in the 1600s. In the United States, he has lived in Boston, New York and, now, Washington, D.C. — three cities where the gun control debate has a totally different tenor than in the Deep South.

“It’s quite interesting how the Democratic candidates in the South are trying to keep a distance from the president of the United States,” Oshima said. “That would never happen in Japan.”

The roughly 8 million subscribers to The Asahi Shimbun want to know about what could be a massive shift in U.S. politics should the Republicans seize control of the U.S. Senate. The GOP already controls the House.

The New York Times counts 45 likely Democrats and 47 likely Republicans with eight competitive races for a majority of 51 in the 100-seat Senate. Three-term U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, is considered particularly vulnerable to a Republican challenger because she is the sole Democrat elected statewide in the otherwise GOP-dominated Louisiana.

Japanese reporters are visiting other Southern states where Senate elections are close, but Louisiana is receiving special attention.

Chatting after candidate speeches to the Louisiana Municipal Association in early August, Mineko Tokito, a reporter with Yomiuri Shimbun, a daily newspaper with twice as many subscribers as Louisiana has people, noted that because the state’s general runoff election is last on the calendar, Louisiana voters could very well decide which party wins in Washington. The primary election is Nov. 4, and if a runoff is necessary, the top two vote-getters will face each other on Dec. 6.

A desire to better explain what Louisiana voters think has led the coverage down the ballot.

Japan’s television network, NHK, traveled in late August to Lake Charles for the Legis-Gator luncheon. The event, sponsored each year by the business group Chamber Southwest Louisiana, is wildly popular with politicians.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley tweeted that more than 50 of the state’s 144 legislators showed up. Most of the congressmen were there. U.S. Sen. David Vitter sat next to state Senate President John Alario, while Kleckley ate beside Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. And it seemed like every politician got a chance to speak.

While, internationally, the effort is to get to know the Louisiana voter, America’s media is focusing on former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, at least as far as the 6th Congressional District race goes.

The 87-year-old populist Democrat is leading nine Republicans in a district that was specifically designed to keep the U.S. House seat securely in GOP hands, which most handicappers say eventually will happen in the December runoff despite Edwards’ charm.

But Edwards is a good story. He willingly talks in considerable detail about his nearly nine years in federal prison. Try broaching the subject of the unnamed “serious sin” with Vitter.

Oshima, of Asahi Shimbun, says he’s read many of the Edwards profiles and may even write one himself. But, he wants to understand the mechanics of how American elections work, particularly what motivates the voters who will decide the control of the U.S. Senate.

It’s more than an abstraction, he says.

The U.S. is Japan’s largest trading partner. American companies sell fuel and raw materials. Japanese companies return manufactured items like cars and electronics.

Historically, American politicians may kick one another around back home, but when they arrived in Japan, they delivered pretty much the same policy message.

The new bitter partisanship that is dominating American politics has changed all that.

Republicans, like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, are going to Japan and contradicting Obama’s policy, which was pretty much the same as Bush’s. Anger and polarized partisanship in the U.S. is now spilling across the borders.

“I’m interested in finding out where all the frustration comes from,” Oshima said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.